Pompey’s heroes of 2024 – and how they relate to 1983, 2012 and many other Fratton milestones

Sometimes I think about something I want to write about, get straight to it and end up rambling on for about 2,000 words. But this is different. I want to write 2,000 words about the League One champions and don’t know where or how to start.
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I could start in 1983 and the last time Pompey won the third division, when Steve Aizlewood was the 80s version of Sean Raggett and when Alan Biley did the Conor-Shaughnessy-heading-in-the-clinching-goal bit.

I could start in 2012 and the day my son, then nine, and I watched us lose to Derby (yes, ironic that) to drop out of the top half of ‘The 92’. Or I could start on New Year’s Day 2023, when the seeds of this amazing season we have just witnessed were sewn.

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But I think what I’ll do is come to all three of those – eventually – but start at the end. The End, with capital letters and everything. April 16, 2024. A date that joins, among others, May 7, 1983; April 15 and 26, 2003 (the first of those two, by the way, was also the date Alex Robertson was born); May 17, 2008; November 27, 2008; May 6, 2017 and March 31, 2019, in the growing list of Pompey days that will live forever in the memory of all who were there.

The phenomenal pictures telling story of Portsmouth night of League One title gloryThe phenomenal pictures telling story of Portsmouth night of League One title glory
The phenomenal pictures telling story of Portsmouth night of League One title glory

I’ve stuck there to the ones denoting occasions I was actually at. Other fans will add May 3, 1980,; April 17, 2017 and a few others if they’re doing their own lists – older readers might add those 1939, 1949 and 1949 dates we all know about too.

But at least a shade under 20,000 of us can now reflect on a new date that will never be forgotten. Another that we’ll talk about when we’re 70 or 80, remembering the detail and the feelings it sparked as if it were yesterday, which, as I write this now, it still is.

For much of Tuesday evening, it didn’t feel like we were close to promotion, even though, elsewhere, Bolton were never winning. The as-it-stands table had a (P) next to our name from start to finish, although only when Shaughnessy went up and threaded another of his corner headers through the eye of a relative needle did a (C) appear next to it.

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It would have been ‘typical Pompey’ – at least to those of us who remember so many near misses, agonies and heartbreaks going back to the 80s and 90s, and further back than that for some – to have lost and been promoted. It would also have been ‘typical Pompey’ to have lost, heard of a late Bolton winner and had to steel ourselves for Saturday and do it all again.

Pompey boss John Mousinho.  Pic: Jason Brown/ProSportsImagesPompey boss John Mousinho.  Pic: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages
Pompey boss John Mousinho. Pic: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

But John Mousinho’s Pompey are not ‘typical Pompey’ – at least they’re not most of the time. They are still prone to making us sweat, which has been true of just about every Blues line-up we’ve ever set eyes upon, but generally speaking they don’t have half the traits that many of their forerunners have had. They don’t shoot themselves in the foot nearly as often as their predecessors.

The 23-24 season has been played out without too many alarms, blips or crises. The fact we’ve clinched top spot with two games to go tells you that. Since very early in the season, we as fans have turned up to games or followed them from afar being able to feel fairly confident of success. A most unnatural outlook for us, you must admit.

Even at home – where Pompey have failed to keep a clean sheet since the visit of Bolton Wanderers, that team self-proclaimed by some of their fans as the best in the league – conceding goals has not felt like the disaster and the bar to success it sometimes did under Danny Cowley or Kenny Jackett.

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Let one in? Never mind, we’ll equalise at some point. Late-ish equaliser? Still time for another. Someone will pop up from a late, late corner. And that is exactly what happened against the Tykes, whose first goal was swiftly cancelled out by a thunderous Kusini Yengi finish and whose second was wiped out by a combination of Mousinho’s latest masterstroke substitutions, as Christian Saydee won the penalty that Colby Bishop tucked away.

Former Pompey boss Danny CowleyFormer Pompey boss Danny Cowley
Former Pompey boss Danny Cowley

That was enough for most of us wasn’t it? A draw rather than a defeat, our own point clinching promotion rather than someone else’s loss, the latest three-month unbeaten run (our second of those in one season – some kind of record?) intact.

But it wasn’t enough for Marlon Pack, nor for Shaughnessy. One last late corner, one last thumping header, one last home win to get us over the promotion line – not limping over it but marching over it, just as we’ve marched at the front of the League One parade for the past seven months.

The scenes that followed were incredible. Thankfully the premature pitch invasion by a few over-excited types immediately after the winning goal was nipped in the bud so that the game could finish and the blue masses could engulf the green, could surround and hug their heroes and could wait to salute them in front of the South Stand. Shout out to whoever put out the ‘please don’t invade the pitch’ warnings, we know you had to, but you knew we had to ignore them. Nothing wrong with any of that.

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And so we come to the final two games able to relax. Or do we? I am sure I am not alone in now wanting us to reach the 100-point barrier, which we can do with wins over Wigan and Lincoln. One hundred points! I know others have done it, and I know that 21 seasons ago, Pompey totalled 98. But 100. It’s a cricket score. It’s 2.38 points per game, for goodness sake.

I don’t begrudge the lads their all-night party in Albert Road, and whatever else they quite justifiably got up to on Tuesday night and in the small hours of Wednesday, but I hope they’re back at it against the Latics. And against Lincoln, when I fully expect us to play our part in stopping the Imps in their tracks and helping Oxford into the play-offs – not because I particularly want Oxford to get into or win the play-offs, I just think they will. If we’re going up, they’re bound to join us. They’re just always there, aren’t they?

So – plenty to play for this Satuday and my matchday superstitions (which include the clothes I will be wearing, the angle from which I will be taking a picture of the Jimmy Dickinson statue, and the times at which I will feel the need to consume the blocks of my Yorkie bought for me by my friend John from the North Lower (west end) food kiosk, that’s after the two chunks ‘held over’ from Tuesday night’s Yorkie – in case they have sold out of them on Saturday – have gone) will remain solidly in place.

But, whatever happens now, we will be playing in the Canon League Division 2 (is it still called that?) in August.

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We’ll be off to Blackburn, Preston, Millwall, Sunderland, Watford, maybe QPR, maybe Leeds, maybe Leicester, probably Sheffield United. Is now a good time to point out we last won at Bramall Lane in 1955 despite having played there 25 times since? Okay, I’ll gloss over that. And they’ll all be coming to us too. And maybe we’ll play Everton or Nottingham Forest under the Fratton lights. And with luck we’ll have a grand Saturday lunchtime jaunt up the M27 to face that lot up the road and see if a 2020s version of David Norris emerges from the ranks.

The 2024-25 season will be my 44th watching Pompey and rather neatly it will be the 22nd of those spent in the second division. I – and many, many other Pompey fans, I am sure – have always thought of that division as our natural home. The top flight is very nice now and then; the third tier has had its moments but (and we can say this now) does feel a bit too full of ‘small teams’ to be a good fit for us, and the fourth tier, well, let’s just say four years in that was enough and more, thank you very much. I still shudder at the thought of the 1-0 loss at home to York. York!

I can’t wait for the Championship (yes, I’ve now been brought up to date and informed that Canon have recently and sadly brought their sponsorship deal to an end) and I think we’ll do okay. Yes it’s a big step up but we’ve not just bumbled our way to the League One title. We’ve done it with a bit to spare and we’ve done it with a squad massively hit by long-term injuries to key players.

When you add the treatment room troops – like Regan Poole, Tom McIntyre and Joe Morrell – to the players that have carried us through these past few months, it is an impressive squad. It has competition in almost all departments – and that’s before the inevitable summer outs and ins have begun. There will be players leaving – including, quite possibly, one or two who have done a lot to get us to the top of L1 and who fans will be sorry to see depart – and there will certainly be players arriving.

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Richard Hughes and co will have been plotting for the Championship for most of this season, maybe even longer. They will know in some cases the names and contract situations of particular players they want, and they will know, beyond that, what type of players they want and how much money they will have at their disposal to go and get them.

This ‘hidden’ side of the club – the recruitment and longer-term planning – has sharpened up massively in the past year or two and is a huge reason why 2023-24 has been such a success. The pressure on those people to maintain their great work is huge but we must have faith that they will continue to have many more successes than failures in who they bring in.

And that brings me to our manager. I remember a number of local journos all tweeting the same thing at the same time on January 19, 2023, saying they understood that ‘John Mousinho is under serious consideration to become the next head coach of Portsmouth… chairman of the PFA… still under contract as a player with Oxford United’. There were too many of them saying the same thing for there to be nothing in it, and sure enough 24 hours later, here he was.

I like to think I was in the ‘let’s give him a chance’ camp. I was curious and, yes, a bit sceptical. Did the owners and bosses know what they were doing here? Was it a gamble? It felt like it, but it didn’t take long for Mousinho to get the majority of fans onside and believing he could do something for us, with a passing aeroplane perhaps convincing a few to give him time rather than taking the opposite view.

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The remainder of 22-23 was decent, but contained too many draws for us to have a serious bid to get into the play-offs. It was our sixth season of falling short, and was the third in a row in which we had not even got to the play-offs. Not good enough, but Mousinho, Jon Harley and their staff had done enough in less than half a season to suggest 23-24 might bring brighter fortunes. And the summer’s arrivals on the playing staff strengthened that feeling.

I mentioned New Year’s Day 2023 earlier and this is where I return to it. It was the day Cowley’s Pompey hosted Charlton – three days after almost toppling high-flying Ipswich at Fratton. If Charlton had been beaten, fans might have been tempted to think a wretched last couple of months of 2022 were behind us and a promotion bid could be within our capabilities.

But Charlton romped to a 3-1 win, Fratton Park was seething, as much as bricks and mortar themselves can seethe, and a day later the brothers were on the way, 22 months after Jackett had departed amid a similarly heavy air of discontentment among wearied, worn-down, success-hungry supporters.

When we look back on our seven years in League One, it’s impossible not to conclude, if you want to put it in simple terms, that Mousinho has succeeded where Jackett and Cowley failed. That’s what this latest chapter of the Pompey story will say in years to come and it won’t be wrong.

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But I do think it’s too simplistic to say those previous two bosses simply failed. Jackett put a good team together in his first couple of years – remember when Pitman, Curtis, Lowe and Evans were our front four? – and had he been bolder and maybe less stubborn in his ways, he might well have got us up. Cowley didn’t get us into the play-offs but did bring in some players who have been key to the title win – Joe Rafferty, Connor Ogilvie, Pack, Morrell, Bishop – and some will say that if he’d had the recruitment support that Mousinho has had, he might have done better. We’ll never know, of course.

What you can’t argue with is that the appointment of Mousinho has been an absolute masterstroke and we have at the helm a manager who can take us further and will probably, in time, go to much higher levels himself – with or without us. We’ve had plenty of managers who ‘get’ Pompey, we’ve had plenty who know how to win games of football – but have we ever had one who gets Pompey, knows how to win games and comes across so impressively and in such a cool and collected manner as Mousinho does, both in interviews and to anyone who meets him personally? You’d think he’d been in management for 20 years the way he goes about the job.

It’s his air of authority, his willingness to do things his way and take the odd gamble, and his record so far, a record which far outdoes that of just about everyone else who’s ever occupied our manager’s office, that gives me great hope for our Championship campaign.

And this is where I’m reminded of 1983, when Yazoo, the Mighty Wah and Big Country were on the tannoy playlist (actually if Eric Eisner is picking the tunes next year they’ll probably be heard again...) and when Kevin Dillon and Neil Webb were that generation’s – my generation’s, if you like – Paddy Lane and Abu Kamara. Some of the same people who were on the pitch the other night were, like me, also on it then, but as kids rather than with their kids. Oh and we had a key man named Rafferty in the team back then too.

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The 82-83 campaign was not as convincing as this one has been but it was still scintillating in places and ended with the pot being lifted, and we went up to Division 2 with high hopes. Our first season in the second division was gung-ho – we won 4-3 some weeks, and lost 4-3 other weeks. Slight exaggeration, but we were among the highest scorers and the leakiest defenders.

We finished 16th, a placing that had John Deacon summoning Alan Ball from the youth team office to the first team office and leading us to two promotion near misses followed by a hit in an era that’s been well chronicled so many times (including in a very good Pompey history book marking the 125th anniversary that will soon have a softback edition that I shall be recommending to you).

And now I am wondering… we know football goes in cycles, all clubs have their highs, their lows, then end up where they have been before. So what are the chances of our 2024 elevation to the second tier reflecting the 1983 version? A bumpy first year with plenty to entertain and survival secured, then a few years of promotion pushes? It’s not beyond the realms.

That brings me to something that Michael Eisner has consistently said in interviews which I have been sceptical about. He’s always said he did not want Pompey to be promoted to the Championship until he can be certain they won’t go back down.

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My response to that has always been “Sorry Mr Eisner, football doesn’t work like that. Promotion can never guarantee survival at the higher level.” And I still think you can’t totally fireproof yourselves from relegation. The league structure would be rather odd if you could. But maybe he genuinely thinks he has the power – and perhaps even the wealth – to make that true in his own club’s case. Perhaps he’s on to something; perhaps we’re immune, or close to it, to being a yo-yo club all the time Tornante are at the wheel? We’ll see, I suppose.

But as we look forward to an exciting summer and a 24-25 season that will be full of new experiences and surely not short on highs and lows, I think it’s important to look back at the 12 years we have spent among the lower half of The 92.

As I said earlier, my son, Adam, was nine when he witnessed the second of three Pompey relegations that came along in his first four years as a fan (that is the best way to start, I think – the only way really is up after such an opening to your life as a fan). I remember the day well – we had to beat Derby and hope somebody else beat somebody else – I am pretty sure Barnsley were involved then too. And it was no real surprise when it ended in the drop to League One being confirmed and the players doing a weary lap of the pitch with fans sympathising with them but just wanting to go home.

We probably thought we’d be back up in a year or two, but we reckoned without the tail end of those grim years of rogue owners and off-field nastiness and nightmares dragging us down further, then taking longer than anyone thought it would to turn the juggernaut around again. As Andy Moon said on Radio Solent the other night, four years in League Two seemed an age – it’s a good job we didn’t know in 2017 another seven in League One were in front of us.

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Adam is 21 now and living in Leeds, where uni took him and where he is now proud and unafraid to wear his 1992-93 replica Pompey shirt around town. He’s looking forward to a short trek to the away end at Elland Road next season, if Leeds manage not to go up. If they do, then the trip to Huddersfield is not a bad one for him.

Pompey’s rise back up from 2012 has been tortuous at times, often painful to watch, but what it is they say? No pain, no gain. You can’t enjoy the highs if you haven’t been through the lows. So let’s pause and give due credit to all those that have played their part in everything that’s happened in the past 12 years and got us on the way back up.

I’d be daft to try to list even a fraction of the names of those who have done their bit but do you know what, I’m going to do it anyway, so here’s some that come to mind off the top of my head: Iain McInnes, Ashley Brown, Mick Williams and Mark Trapani are four that spring to mind immediately, with Trevor Birch probably deserving of being in that same company. Then there’s everyone who played parts big or small in the Pompey Supporters’ Trust, everyone who put hands in pockets, everyone who kept going to games when we didn’t win a single game between October 2012 and March 2013, Guy Whittingham, Alan Knight, Andy Awford, Alan McLoughlin and Paul Hardyman, countless other staff, coaches and players of those times; Paul Cook, Leam Richardson, Ian Foster, Mark Catlin, Cook’s teams who ended our run of bottom-half finishes and then got us out of the basement division; the Eisners, their board and staff, Jackett, Joe Gallen, the Cowley brothers, Simon Bassey, Andy Cullen, all the other players who have tried to get us out of League One, sponsors, season tickt holders, the regular away fans, the many who do such great work to keep Pompey’s profile high in the community and – as already mentioned and praised in this piece – Mousinho, Jon Harley, Hughes and the 23-24 squad. I’ll almost certainly have forgotten some crucial to the cause there – if that is you, I apologise. And this is as good a place as any to remember the fans, former players and others who have passed away before this new high point. We all know someone who’s not here to see it.

For many of those people listed above and many more besides, 2023-24 has tasted so sweet. Seasons like Pompey’s 2023-24 come along very rarely and if you can’t savour them to the full then what’s the point of being a fan? And I think we all have savoured it to the full, and will continue to do so until 24-25 explodes into action and gives us a new focus.

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If I think back to its crucial moments of 23-24, the crossroads at which Pompey had to be careful to go straight on, I can pinpoint a few. I remember us being 1-0 down at home to Peterborough on the first Saturday in September, this after two wins and three draws from our first five league games and a League Cup loss on pens, also versus Posh, and thinking ‘Hmmm, this could be another of those seasons.’ We trailed for 18 minutes but within five minutes scored twice to lead 2-1 – and never really looked back.

Top spot was ours a couple of weeks later, just in time for the magnificent statue of Gentleman Jim to be unveiled. He of course has remained in the same spot since – and so have the team.

When we trailed 4-0 late on to Blackpool, a significant proportion of the fans still inside the ground started chanting about how they didn’t give an F about the score because Pompey were going up – and I maintain to this day that message must have lifted the players – players who proceeded to win their next four games, including one of the most vital of the season – that masterful beating of Bolton, inspired by Kusini Yengi, who deserved his late tap-in that night so richly.

I remember following from home as we eked out a scrappy 1-0 at Fleetwood in mid-January following a run of five points from six games – an unremarkable win but one of the most important. I will never forget the elation of Callum Lang’s burst from his own half to set up Lane to lash home a third ten-man Pompey goal against Northampton, nor the similar feeling when Saydee brilliantly tucked away the one that proved the winner v Oxford, nor Owen Moxon’s piledriver to dent Derby’s desire to catch us up just over a fortnight ago. Was that really only just a fortnight ago? It feels like half a season ago.

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On from the day we beat Southend 2-0 to clinch promotion from the old division three back in ’83, the headline on the front of the Sports Mail was THEY’VE DONE IT. Well 41 years on, the third tier is behind us once more…THEY’VE DONE IT AGAIN. And frankly, I don’t think any of us could be more made up about it.

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